- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) - Jeremy Andrews felt the grip of anticipation as he helped about 20 students assemble a hoop house behind Lakeview High School.

“This is really step one - a garden that can grow food,” said the leader of Battle Creek-based Sprout Urban Farms. “Then there will be steps 2, 3 and 4 and what they don’t know that’s around the corner - the ‘A-ha!’ moments when they produce something.”

Juli Tripicchio’s environmental science class had gathered around a lengthy strip of turned, compost-enriched soil in which they already had planted kale seedlings as well as spinach seeds.

Andrews told the Battle Creek Enquirer (http://bcene.ws/1suvzA1) that the students have been planting spinach and transplanting kale, although upcoming cold weather may be working against them.

“The kale probably isn’t going to make it, but that’s OK because there are good lessons to be learned,” he said. “It’s an experiment.”

It had come time to put up the semicircular rods that would support a plastic skin, transforming the spot into a caterpillar-like greenhouse. Nearby, a flat of additional kale seedlings and a bag of radish seeds awaited.

The project is the practical outcome of classroom studies about health and the environment - a real-world effort to put theory into practice by growing healthy food in a sustainable fashion.

“We started composting last year in the cafeteria, and of course that creates nice, rich soil,” Tripicchio said. “The next step is creating this garden. They’re learning about the benefits of local foods - not having pesticides, not having transportation all the way from California and the CO2 emissions and that sort of thing.”

That sort of thing has students geeked, too.

“Promoting more healthful eating opportunities for our school is really important,” said Paige Tobin, a 17-year-old senior in Tripicchio’s class.

“We have done a lot of activities in our classroom that have been geared toward finding out the benefits of composting and about being environmentally responsible,” Tobin said. “It really resonated with me because in my life I saw all the things that I was doing wrong in contributing to how our earth is right now.”

Tobin even began composting materials to nourish a garden at her own home.

“It’s fun to come out here and hang out with your friends while doing something that’s good for everybody,” said classmate Spencer Rangel, also 17. “And it’s important to eat healthy.”

“I want to go into civil engineering, so I thought this class would be a good class to get a basic learning from,” said another classmate, Marilyn Lalrindiki, also 17. “It’s been a fun experience with the hoop house and actually get hands-on involved.”

A grant from the Battle Creek Community Foundation made it possible for the high school to enlist the aid of Sprout. Additional help has come from local businesses, other schools - and a pile of volunteer hours.

Tripicchio said Andrews has given talks to her class, and in response the students have visited Sprout’s production facility.

“He has just been amazing,” Tripicchio said of Andrews’ ability to help her students with a project that eventually may put fresh food on the school cafeteria’s menu, and perhaps even allow them to distribute local produce to area residents in need of food assistance.

“I can’t say enough how fortunate we are to have someone like that,” she said.

Meanwhile, Andrews finds it heartening that educators and staff in all four of Battle Creek’s public school districts are showing an active interest in helping their students understand the link between good food and good health.

At the nonprofit organization he launched in 2009, Andrews’ title is “chief excitement officer.” Increasingly, Sprout has been working with area schools to inspire and shape student involvement in school gardens, including lessons in composting, ecology and even growing food for their cafeterias.

Andrews helped develop the pilot project at Lakeview so students could see what it takes to blend science with environmental stewardship.

“So, instead of being a far-off project, it’s actually happening right here in their backyard,” he said. “Now they can grow lettuce in the springtime for their cafeteria.”

In early 2011, the Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network began assisting Sprout with its first large grant. Other funding now comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region and the Battle Creek Community Foundation.

Sprout also relies on a broad-based network of volunteers that works to make fresh, healthy food easier to obtain in urban areas.

“It’s not just about communing with the Earth and growing your food from Mother Earth,” Andrews said. “It’s not just this hippie-freelove thing. It is building communities.”

Students across the local districts appear eager to get involved and do the work, said Andrews, who often responds to requests from local educators for help from his organization.

Andrews said Sprout’s “Farm to School” endeavor aims to build awareness of the impact of local food systems, help launch school gardens and composting programs, guide schools in incorporating healthy-lifestyles concepts within specific lessons, and connect school gardens and local farmers to school cafeterias.

The work augments Sprout’s two-acre gardening project, launched in 2011 in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

“Most of the time when students come to the farm, it’s either through social clubs such as the National Honor Society or through volunteerism such as the United Way’s Day of Caring,” Andrews said. “We take anywhere from 75 to 125 students in a day and in three hours every spring they basically clean up and make our farm ready for summer planting, removing trees and cutting limbs, turning compost piles, turning beds and making things pretty again.”

In exchange, students learn about how food is grown and distributed.

“There’s a lot of learning that can be done inside of a greenhouse,” Andrews said.

But there is drawback because of the time and energy needed for students to converge on the project. Bringing Sprout’s projects directly to the schools actually turns out to be more eco-friendly, Andrews said. It reduces individual travel time to the farm, for one thing.

“The reality is let’s go there if we really want to do something,” Andrews said.

In recent weeks, the organization has been working with several area schools to connect students to food-based projects, Andrews said. In addition to the hoop house at Lakeview, Andrews also is working with the high school’s environmental science teacher to train students in grant writing, composting and pedal-powered electricity.

Other projects elsewhere include:

- An aquaponics project at Calhoun Community School, during which students learn about how waste can be recycled into a closed-loop cycle to nourish the growth of fish. The school also is on track to build a small hoop house of its own. “They’ll be growing salad for the cafeteria and procuring local vegetables from area farmers, keeping those local dollars local,” Andrews said.

- An after-school vegetable market on Thursday afternoons at Riverside Elementary School, and a school garden at Prairieview Elementary, also in the Lakeview district.

- Another hoop house project with STEM students at Dudley Elementary School in the Battle Creek Public Schools.

- A hoop house at North Pennfield Elementary School, including an experimental learning project. Pennfield High School also has a garden and mentoring project, tied to support from the school’s food service.

- A future project Andrews said he is working to develop in the Harper Creek district.

“For educators, administrators, parents and students, I don’t feel like this is a flash-in-the-pan, trendy sort of thing, introducing healthy foods in schools,” Andrews said. “It just used to be the norm for our grandparents. They all ate healthy food at home. This brings us back to our roots.”

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